Gender lessons from the Mosuo people of China

Malapit is the Research Associate and Policy Analyst of Action for
Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the Yellow Pad column of
Business World, 16 August 2004 Edition.

A recent story on the Discovery Channel show “Hour Asia” featured an
unusual indigenous tribe of the Yunnan province of China, the Mosuo
people. Two things make this tribe particularly interesting: First, in
this tribe women do all the work – including physical labor. Men do
little or nothing all day. Second, there are no marriages in this
tribe. Consequently, they have no concept of ‘husband’ or ‘father’.

A Chinese oddity

The Lugu Lake is home to the Mosuo people, one of China’s 56 ethnic
groups. Hidden from the rest of China behind the Xiaoliang mountains,
the Mosuo culture has evolved with little influence from its neighbors.
Unlike the rest of China, where the one-child policy created nuclear
families and a clear preference for male children, the Mosuo people
live in extended families and prefer female children.

The most publicized aspect of the Mosuo culture however, is their
sexual freedom – men and women can have as many lovers as they wish
without legal restraints. Recently, Lugu Lake has become a popular
tourist spot, particularly for men enticed by the fantasy of “free
love”.

The “walking marriage”

The institution of marriage as we know it does not exist in the Mosuo
culture. Instead, they practice “walking marriages”, where the man
would visit the woman at night, and go home to his mother’s house in
the morning. They can begin or end their relationship at any time, and
are allowed as many lovers as they wish. There is no formality in these
relationships and lovers never share common property, as all property
is inherited by women. Children borne from such unions are raised by
the mother’s family, and live their entire lives in their mother’s
home. There are no social or economic responsibilities expected from
the father.

The Mosuo people find little reason to mix matters of survival and
matters of the heart. For them, control over matters of property and
the raising of children should remain in the hands of blood relatives,
whose loyalty to the family is unquestionable. Thus, relationships are
pursued out of love, without issues of money or property to complicate
it. Contented couples stay together, and unhappy couples can go their
separate ways. The absence of paternal relations has done away with
domestic conflicts with in-laws, a common source of conflict in our
society.

Women rule

Mosuo families are organized in maternal clans, with several
generations living under one roof. The extended family is led by the
matriarch, and leadership of the household is passed on to the most
intelligent daughter.

The matriarch makes all the economic decisions, dividing the work and
the income of the household among its members. The curious thing about
the division of labor, however, is that women do almost all the work,
both productive (farming/fishing) and domestic work. Men work only
twice a year, during extreme labor shortages.

What is the quality of life of the Mosuo men?
For many men in our society, a “walking marriage” is perhaps a dream
come true. One anonymous male posted a message in the internet saying
that all his friends want to join the Mosuo tribe when they found out
that men can have multiple lovers with no social or economic
responsibilities. But are Mosuo men really better off?

Following standard consumption theory, the Mosuo men must have very
high levels of satisfaction or utility considering the amount of
leisure they enjoy. On the other hand, if we define well-being in terms
of human functioning, as in Amartya Sen’s definition of the ability “to
do” and “to be”, one might conclude that Mosuo men are clearly at a
disadvantage, since they have little control over their lives.

Gender biases reflect power structures

Feminist economists have argued that the gender bias we observe in our
societies today reflects the power structure between men and women.
Perhaps the arguments put forward by feminist economists are better
appreciated when the tables are turned. In the Mosuo tribe, it is
obvious that because women have control over resources, they can decide
who gets what and enjoy a much higher social status than men.

In fact, because there is little conflict and therefore little
bargaining in Mosuo households, it exemplifies Gary Becker’s
‘altruistic’ family model. In Becker’s model, an altruistic dictator
(the matriarch), who ‘cares’ for the welfare of all the members of her
family, optimally allocates household resources among its members.
However, we must clarify that the matriarch does not dictate because
she is the most altruistic or caring member of the family. She dictates
because she has the power to do so.

The Mosuo tribe is a clear example of how gender roles are in fact
“socially-ascribed”. Women’s biological function of childbearing has
been traditionally used as an argument for the “natural” assignment of
household responsibilities to women. Feminist economists argue,
however, that only childbearing is biologically restricted to women,
while childrearing and household work is socially determined.

In the Mosuo society, men participate in childrearing as uncles and
brothers, but do little else. Surely, the assignment of productive work
to women, including physical labor, has less to do with biological
functions, and more to do with social structure.

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How mothers keep the peace

One wonders how it is that the dominated gender, in this case the men,
are not exploited or overworked. It is almost as if the men are being
“compensated” for their disempowerment, and this benevolent treatment
of men is probably what keeps them from overthrowing the matriarch. In
addition, this structure conditions men to depend completely on women
in all aspects of survival. There is simply no incentive for the men to
challenge their existing way of life.

This bears some similarities in the male-dominated households many of
us are more familiar with. When women are less educated, and have less
opportunities to financially support themselves and their children,
they are entirely dependent on their husbands for survival. Unlike the
benevolent treatment of men in the Mosuo tribe, however, these women
work long hours and take on great responsibilities – often without
recognition that what they do is “real work”. Although this breeds
discontent, the lack of alternatives for these women and the threat of
violence, allow this power structure to thrive.

More than just a feminist fantasy, the survival of a culture with a
seemingly impossible setup teaches us an important lesson: that an
alternative social structure can exist. A world where no man rules, no
man makes important decisions, no man inherits property, and no man
works, is not just a myth.

Contrary to fears raised by those who hesitate to empower women,
society need not fall apart when women have control. In fact, the
female-dominated society of Mosuo exists in love and harmony – a stark
contrast to male-dominated societies that exist in violence and hate.
The Mosuo people have successfully averted many social problems. As a
result, their language has no words for war, murder or rape.

The struggle for equality

Although the Mosuo experience is certainly far from the ideal of gender
equality, it shows that there is nothing natural or inevitable about
gender biases. A bias for one or the other is influenced by power
relations and social roles, not biology. If we truly believe that every
individual – regardless of race, ethnicity or gender – is entitled to
the same privileges and benefits development has to offer, we must seek
to transform the very structures that perpetuate and reinforce
inequalities.

The good news is that gender relations have been changing with the
times. Gone were the days when educating girls was believed to be a
waste, since they will only marry and become housewives. Gone were the
days when it was unthinkable for a woman to vote. By recognizing that
social roles can change, given the proper incentives, we have overcome
the first hurdle in the struggle for gender equality.

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